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And the Band Played On

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Competition Entry: Mardi Gras

Getting up to the attic is a chore these days. Hell, some mornings just getting out of bed is a chore. Still on the right side of the lawn though, which is something. So full of history up here. The weight of it lies heavy on my shoulders at times. Featherlight at others. Dusty boxes labeled with memories line the walls. Lone bulb flickering, doing its best to keep the light going. I know how it feels. Grampy used to come up here all the time to practice. And to get away for a bit from the hustle and bustle downstairs. ‘Man needs space to hear himself think,” he’d tell me.  Mostly, though, he just wanted to blow his horn. He was long gone but that horn of his? I’d held on tight to it. Old King trumpet. Probably worth some dough, specially since he’d kept it in such good shape. So had I. Still had the original case too, though it was a bit beat up. The leather wore the marks of time. Much like he had. Me too. Time does that to a man. Time and the hardships of life.

Today, though, wasn’t a day to dwell. Today was Fat Tuesday. Why I was up so early, even before the damn crows. Barely dawn. Still a chill in the air. And one in my tired old bones. Usually I tooted on my Yamaha. Sweet, sweet tones. The King was more strident. Like a rooster. Making sure that he was heard. Paid attention to. Today was his day. Tradition. It still shone, too. I’d made sure of that. Just like Grampy had taught me. ‘Boy. You gotta treat your horn like a woman,’ He’d say, sitting on the old wooden stool, polishing it until it gleamed.  Lost in the act, his smile reminding me of how he looked at Grammy some days, his eyes gleaming with unspoken words.

‘Gotta make her feel special, Otis. Never forget that.’

I hadn’t, either. I’d done my best to make sure my Cricket felt cared for. Cherished.  Even when she was driving me crazy I never once stopped loving her. She knew it too. I made damn sure of that.  Just like this old horn. My hands began to itch, fingers hungering to feel that horn in my hands. Had to do it proper, though. There was a right way to do things. Traditions were important. They made a man appreciate the ‘why’. I’d learned that from my Pops, back before the big C took him out of this life and into the next.  Grampy had always gotten dressed before he ever set a finger on the King so I did too. His old uniform still hung in the wardrobe. There’d been years I’d worn it. A tribute, I’d tell Cricket, but it was more than that. I wanted to feel him, even if for just a short while. I needed to feel his spirit beside me as I marched down St. Charles Avenue with my krewe. I needed to be reminded.

I still remember the first day I’d seen him marching like it was yesterday. Sat up on my pop’s shoulders, all of 3 years old. His Uniform crisp and clean. Both solemn and festive. Black trousers and coat adorned with brightly colored ribbons of purple, green, and gold. His cap sitting jauntily atop his head…

Oh, when those saints…

Uncle Richie was there, too, tapping on his snare drum. Eleven of them. Snare, bass, tuba, t-bones, saxes, clarinets, two horn players. Oh, lord, they made a joyous raucous, though.

…come marching in.

The faint smell of mothballs clung to both uniforms. Almost identical. Tradition was important. It kept those who’d come before you alive even after they were long gone. Just as important as the stories Grampy and Grammy used to tell at the table, talking about the old days. About growing up. About family, some who’d I’d never met, but I still knew them. I knew their stories. That’s all people are, after all. Their essence lay in the stories they left behind. Music was like that. Songs were stories, really. I liked to think that, as long as I played my horn, a little bit of Grampy would live on.

I took my time. Making sure the creases on my trousers were straight. My crisp, freshly starched shirt was carefully tucked in. My coat was just so and my cap sat at just the right angle on my head. I felt myself standing a little taller. A little straighter. Felt a little younger as I admired myself in the mirror in the far corner. I looked sharp despite the lines on my face and hair that had once been jet black having gone to gray. Satisfied I took the King from its case, handling it carefully, the cool brass warming in my hands as I put the mouthpiece to my lips, puffed my cheeks out, and blew.

Wake up, everybody. Wake up, world, Wake up. Today is a day to celebrate. And when the sun begins to shine…

I took my time. You don’t rush the music. Warming up, up in that dusty old attic, playing songs from my childhood. Songs that Grampy had taught me. Songs that had shaped who I was. Who so many had played before me. Louis. Dizzy. Miles. Nat. Freddie. Clifford. Bix…

I got lost in the music. You do that. Lost in the joy of each note. Lost in my memories. Grampy sitting there on his stool, eyes closed, blowing soft and sweet. Swing low, sweet chariot. Songs his pops had taught him. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Amen to that. Down by the Riverside…

Lost, but not so lost I’d forgotten what day it was. It was close to noon when I packed the king back into its case. Didn’t want to be late. Couldn’t afford to. Krewe kept getting smaller every year. Only six of us now, and I was the only horn player. Time does that. We’d just lost Lawrence to a stroke and James said he was just getting too damn old. Six of us, but damn, we could still make some noise. Truth is, my joints were getting too old and crotchety to keep up these days, but I was too bullheaded not to. Besides, some things you just had to do. Like breathing. Marching with my krewe was like that. Long as I kept at it I’d be fine. Moment I stopped? Well, I wasn’t ready to call it quits just yet.

They were all there. Waiting. All five of them, smiles all around. Louis had brought the java. Stan had brought Jambalaya and collard greens. He owned a Deli on Canal Street. Maurice had a boxful of homemade beignets. His daughter, Clarice, always made them special for us. I’d brought a pot of dirty rice that I’d cooked up yesterday evening and we had ourselves a feast.

“Made it another year.” Carlton gave me a gentle pat on the back.

“Until they lay me six feet under.”

Laughter and the nodding of heads. Good food warmed me from the inside out. So did good company. Men I’d grown up with. Played together with as boys. Been together through good times and bad. Maurice had been my best man at my wedding and I’d played taps for Carlton’s pops when he’d passed. More memories. I felt a wave of sadness as I thought about those who were no longer with us but it passed quickly as we ribbed each other around the fold-up table Floyd had hauled over in his beat-up Ford pick-up, along with homemade cornbread and coleslaw.

We warmed up. Louis looked a bit out of breath and Floyd hit his share of sour notes, but the spirit was there. You could feel the simple joy of creating music together. And then it was time to step off…

Halfway through the route, my feet were hurting. My knees too. While Joshua fit de battle of old Jericho, I was fighting the battle of old age.  As Cricket was fond of reminding me, ‘You ain’t no spring chicken no more, Otis.’

More like a winter chicken, but while I could still blow, I could push the pain aside. Heading down Bourbon street I caught a glimpse of a young girl, up on her daddy’s shoulders, nodding her head with the beat of the bass drum and pointing at us. Her smile lit the morning and I felt a little bounce in each step, remembering that first time I’d heard Grampy play. Maybe someday she’d be marching down the cobbles, blowing her horn. Could be. Could be.

I made it to the end. We all did. Tired but still standing proud. We’d made it. Cricket met us she always did. Hot cocoa and more beignets. And, for me, a kiss.

“You sounded good today.”

I could only chuckle. “Don’t lie to me, woman. But we sounded the best we could.”

“Grampy would have been proud.”

I pushed back my cap, feeling the weight of years lighten as she put her arm around my waist and walked me to the car. Behind us, the party kept going. Life went on as floats tossed trinkets to the crowd and music filled the air. Bands much bigger than ours. Younger too. University kids carrying on the tradition. Playing the tunes passed down from generation to generation. Keeping the stories alive long after those who had told them were dead and buried. It gave me hope.

I said my goodbyes to my krewe. Years back we’d go down to The Sazerac for gin fizzes and some laughs. These days I was content with a brandy in the drawing room while playing Pop’s Sidney Bechet records on the phonograph player, marveling at his skill on the licorice stick.  Maybe I’d give my grandson Robert a call, see if he wanted to come up and visit. Maybe play some jams. Maybe it was time to pass Grampy’s old King on and keep the story going…

Written by sprite
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